Kumpulan Akitek: A pioneer architectural firm under the radar?

In the past few years, quite a bit has been researched and published — either online or through physical publications — on pioneer architects and architectural firms in Singapore. In my view, one of the important local firms that has been slightly under the radar in these publications is Kumpulan Akitek. It is true that one of their buildings, the Subordinate Courts (1970-75), now renamed the State Courts, has been gazetted for conservation and is also much loved and photographed. It is indeed also correct that one of its former partners Chan Sau Yan Sonny is still very active and has just been awarded the PDA’s Designer of the Year for 2011. But the firm Kumpulan Akitek itself — and two of its partners Victor Chew and Wee Chwee Heng in the Singapore Office — and the outstanding works that they produced during the 1960s and 1970s have not received sufficient attention. Perhaps this is because many of their buildings were demolished. Another plausible reason is that the partners are publicity-shy people.

Section and elevation of the Subordinate Courts, 1970-75. Source: Kumpulan Akitek brochure, circa late 1970s.

I have recently been interviewing one of its partners and learnt a lot more about the works of the firm. And through a colleague I got hold of a rather impressive and rare brochure of the firm from the late 1970s. By looking at their corpus of works in the 1960s-70s, I think we can better situate and understand the design and planning of their most famous work, the Subordinate Courts. It is with this in mind that I thought I would write a short post about the firm through a brief analysis of the plans of a few of their projects.

The interesting external form of the Subordinate Courts starts with the planning strategy of putting a pair of courtrooms with judges’ chambers and allied facilities together and articulating them as a distinct volume. At the lower two floors, these distinct volumes are positioned around an octagonal core, which also houses a central atrium and the circulation elements — i.e. staircases, lifts and corridors. At the top two floors, the volumes are organised slightly differently and rotated around the octagonal core to create an external form that has distinct sculptural volumes that overlapped to form an overall interesting massing.

Plans of the Subordinate Courts, 1970-75. Source: Kumpulan Akitek brochure, circa late 1970s.

The design strategies of using an octagon as an organising form and having clearly articulated external volumes could also be found in other Kumpulan Akitek’s works. For instance, in their early residential development Hilltops (completed 1965), 7 individual apartments on each floor were organised around an octagon, which served also as a void open to the sky. Not only was each apartment articulated as a distinct external volume, every apartment also got its own uninterrupted view while also enjoying privacy from the adjacent units.

External view of Hilltops, 1965. Source: Kumpulan Akitek brochure, circa late 1970s.

Typical floor plan of Hilltops, 1965. Source: Kumpulan Akitek brochure, circa late 1970s.

In another of their residential project — the Highpoint Apartment (1971-74) that is still around — octagons are also used as an organising geometry. In this case, three octagons of different sizes are clustered together to form an apartment with all-round view. Three of these apartments are in turn placed on each floor with long corridors as connectors. The polygonal motif is further accentuated on the exterior by the canted shapes of the balconies and sun-shading volumes. These canted shapes are, however, not just merely motifs. They are introduced to negotiate between the split levels.

Exterior view of Highpoint Apartments, 1970-74. Source: Kumpulan Akitek brochure.

Partial typical floor plan of Highpoint Apartments. Source: Seow Eu Jin, Architectural Development in Singapore, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1973. Apologies for the poor reproduction quality.

Plan of Highpoint Apartments, 1970-74. Source: Kumpulan Akitek brochure.

What we see in these projects is a certain geometrical rigour and integrated manner of dealing with form, space, structure, functional organisation and experience. These are the rigour and integrated approach that characterise the best of 1960s and 1970s modernist works in Singapore.

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